Diarmaid Ferriter: Unravelling the myths about migration to Ireland

‘Successive Irish governments were wary of a generous approach to refugees for different reasons relevant to particular eras’

In discussions on the migrant crisis, much has been made of the invoking of history. In a speech this week, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker asserted that the issue was "first of all a matter of humanity and of human dignity and for Europe it is also a matter of historical fairness", given the common European history marked by migration. In relation to Ireland, history has also been invoked with a view to characterising the approach to refugees in the past as "shameful".

It is worth adding some context to that assertion. Successive Irish governments were wary of a generous approach to refugees for different reasons relevant to particular eras. During the State’s early years existence refugee welfare was often seen as belonging to the domain of the churches; an extension of “rescue work” for those whose faith was endangered.

A committee formed in 1938 under the chairmanship of ceann comhairle Frank Fahy to assist refugees from central Europe was backed by an array of senior Catholic and Church of Ireland bishops, headed by Cardinal Joseph MacRory. Its appeal focused on the plight of "thousands of Christians who have lost everything except their faith". But the plan was that refugees would be accepted only in order to train them or equip them with with which skills they could then leave Ireland. "The committee does not envisage the permanent settlement of refugees in Ireland." Their position would be the same as that of "other aliens"; permanent residence could be considered only "in those exceptional cases where there is reason to believe the presence of the alien will be of definite value to this country".

In the early 1950s a small number of European refugees, including Russians, Estonians and Latvians, were brought to Ireland under the patronage of the United Council of Churches. There were 18 of them in 1951, 11 in 1955 and a decade later just eight residents.


The situation of the 540 Hungarians who came to Ireland after the revolution in 1956 is better known. A year after they arrived, only 222 were still in Knockalisheen Camp. An Irish Times report noted 188 had gone to other countries, "several are unaccounted for" and two had been committed to a reformatory for "disorderly conduct".

Mass inclination to leave

What was referred to as the “great surge of sympathy” in 1956 “would seem to have dwindled away to a state of apathy towards the refugees”. In the camp there was a “mass inclination to leave Ireland”.

Their welfare was largely left to the Irish Red Cross, to which the Irish public donated £140,000 (the equivalent of more than €4 million today), which was extraordinarily generous, underlining a consistent theme historically – significant public empathy could exist alongside cool and parsimonious governments.

The Hungarians were condemned by some as lazy and ungrateful, but one contemporary critic of the way they were treated pointed out that “they were given an invitation to settle here without any official understanding of the application of this problem of resettlement”.

There was confusion as to whether Ireland was a stepping stone to elsewhere – what it became for the overwhelming majority. What they had experienced was in effect an unpleasant temporary asylum.

Dignity of the individual

Such experiences lay alongside Irish claims about empathetic commitment to human rights and the dignity of the individual born of the historical experience of colonialism, famine and emigration.

Such assertions jarred with the private memoranda of government, such as one from the Department of Justice in relation to the possibility of accepting Chilean refugees in 1974: “Our society is less cosmopolitan than that of Western European countries generally and in consequence, the absorption of even a limited number of foreigners would prove extremely difficult”. But the real fear was communism: the Chilean refugees “are refugees because they are Marxist and probably communists, and it is to be assumed that a significant proportion of their numbers are activists and they are likely . . . to engage in political agitation here”.

In more recent decades, it was misplaced fear of the economic consequences of accepting refugees that prevailed. At a conference in 1999, former minister for equality and law reform Mervyn Taylor suggested a common view on refugees and asylum seekers was "these people are a problem, they're a difficulty, they are going to take our jobs". What history demonstrated, however, maintained Taylor, was that "when asylum seekers and refugees come to a country they make a contribution to that country out of all proportion to what they take".

This accurate assertion is one that the State should heed in framing its response to the current crisis and also in dealing with current asylum seekers who have languished far too long in “direct provision” centres.